The scream tore through us.
“That’s Penny!” Cougar was the first out through the bunkhouse door, gun in hand. The rest of us were right on his heels, moving so fast that Jack’s knee knocked over the poker table when he jumped up. Chips, coins, and cards flew everywhere.
Not a man noticed.
“Reggie! He’s gone!”
We could make out the words now. This was bad. Very bad.
It was a chill autumn night, somewhere around nine o’clock or I missed my guess. The countryside was filled with deadly predators ranging from bobcats to mountain lions, bears, wolves, coyotes, you name it. The rattlesnakes were denned; there was that. But maybe not all the bears, not yet; it had remained warm up till now, and the berries had remained plentiful.
It was starting to snow.
Carefully, ever so carefully, the four of us spiraled out from the ranch yard, searching fer sign. We carried pine-pitch torches, and we went on foot. A small but crucial hint could be missed from horseback.
In the yard itself, the women were cranking up the fire pits, a flickering blaze of light that would give any of us–hopefully including little Reggie himself–a beacon to follow. Fer that purpose, it was good, plus it let the ladies feel they were doing something, but we kid hunters kept our backs to it or our eyes shielded to preserve our night vision.
Marie had asked if we thought a search party from town would be of help. No, the conclusion had been that it would not, at least not until morning. By then, iffen we’d had no luck, we’d likely be looking fer a small, three year old boy’s body to bury. It was below freezing already. Sending word to Walsenburg would cost us a man’s time during these first critical minutes or–if it came to that–hours. A hunnert or more would come, we’d no doubt of that, and most likely do more harm than good, trampling the very indicators we sought without even knowing it.
“We thought he was asleep. All the others are still asleep, even Henry.” Laughing Brook did not seem upset, but then, the Cheyenne woman had seen a lot in her thirty-seven years. When she suffered, she did it inside where no one could see.
The women had encouraged us to have our little card party. “Go on,” they’d said, “Jack needs the company, and that’ll git you all out of the way.” They’d had a great time, Laughing Brook and Penny and Marie, happily lugging everything the younger Tamson family owned to the new house. We still hadn’t started building house number three, which would be fer the Trasks, but Cougar and Penny already had four youngsters. They deserved the space.
We’d hauled over the big stuff—the beds and a kitchen table Coug had crafted, plus a few other things–and left ’em to it. They’d put the little ones down fer the night, watched ’em till they were well off to dreamland, and gotten quietly to work bringing over the clothing and dishes and whatever.
“He woke up, got disoriented in the new place,” his father said quietly.
“No.” Jack Prosser disagreed. “You couldn’t disorient Reggie if you plunked him down in the middle of a stampede. It’s something else.”
“You’re wasting time!” The boy’s redheaded Mom sounded distraught, as well she should be.
Jack’s torch marked his sudden change in course as he headed over my way.
“Got something?” I called out.
“Nothing I’ve seen,” he replied, rapidly closing the distance between us, “But I believe I know where he went. Or tried to go, anyway, iffen he didn’t git pointed the wrong way in the dark before they started the yard fires.”
“Yeah. The spring.”
I thought about that, but before I could come to a conclusion on my own, he explained his thinking. “I been watching that boy. He’s got a thing about being allowed to do anything his big brother does. It was jist today that Penny let Henry hike along with her to lug water back from the spring. Reggie got vetoed, and he didn’t like it much. I seen that in him. I see it all the time.”
“You’re right,” I told him. “Go tell the others. I’m going to head straight up there, see if I can git a fix on the boy.”
Tam was next over, quarter circled out beyond to the northwest of the ranch yard, and Coug was well back around the other way. It would take ’em a time to get there, whereas I had maybe an eighth of a mile to clmb, mostly an easy grade except fer the last eighty yards of knoll.
Jack Prosser was worth his weight in gold. The man saw things the rest of us missed, especially when it came to the kids. I should have seen it myself. It was me, not Jack, who’d watched Reggie on the ride south from Montana, jist two and a half years old but stubborn as any old goat, trying again and again to crawl up that pony’s neck to get at the lead rein until his Daddy’d had enough and lashed him in place. He did have a thing about being allowed to do anything his brother did.
By the time the others caught up to me, I had quite a lot to report. In the softer mud around the spring itself, not yet frozen when he’d arrived, were nearly a dozen footprints not even a half-assed tracker like me could mistake. Reggie had been here, and he was barefoot except fer the special little “sleeping socks” his mother made sure he wore to bed. On one bush, I’d found a wisp of red, a tiny bit of thread that could have only come from his red blanket, his “banky” he’d demanded because Henry had a red blanket.
He’d been here, but he wasn’t here now.
On the way up to the spring after Jack give me the word, I cussed myself fer seven kinds of fool. Not so much about my missing grandson in particular; my mind went wandering off on another tangent. Namely, what on Earth were we doing, still lugging water down off the knoll by hand? It reminded me of that old nursery rhyme.
Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after
Our Jack–Jack Prosser–didn’t look likely to break his crown any time soon, but Reggie…we should have been using horsepower all along. At first, we’d figured to order in a batch of pipe, run a line all the way down to the buildings from the spring itself. Had to be a good hunnert yard drop; the gravity feed pressure would be as good as you could git anywhere. In the meantime, hauling buckets by hand hadn’t seemed like such a big thing.
But then…then one thing had led to another, and we’d kept putting off the ditch digging and pipe laying. Mostly, I had to admit to myself, because it was the women who’d done most of the water hauling, and they hadn’t complained once. Not a true nag in the bunch, and we idjit men had taken advantage, left ’em to it like any old school Blackfoot warrior working the beauty right out of every wife he ever owned.
Well, shame on every one of us. We could at least have put the horses to work. Hitched up a wagon, built a tank on it. The knoll itself was kind of steep fer that, but even if they’d parked the wagon at the base, it’d have meant lugging them heavy buckets eighty yards downhill instead of nearly a quarter of a mile to the house. Could have cut a tough daily chore down to a weekly wagon run, maybe less.
And maybe my grandson would have ridden in the wagon, then talked his Mom into pudgy-trudging them last eighty yards up to the spring itself, and he wouldn’t have gone missing like this.
Seven kinds of fool? More like seventy–
“Tam, look here, would you?”
Cougar’s request yanked me out of my self-hate party. I looked where he was pointing. The little speck of dried blood on the wild rose thorn tip wouldn’t have been noticed by the likes of Jack or even White Bear, but it fairly shouted out its message to me and my son. From the spring, Reggie had headed deeper into the woods topping the knoll, a mixed bunch of cottonwood and pine trees hosting more’n a few serious brush thickets.
“Jack,” I decided, “You head on back down to the ranch. Bring the women up to date. Tell ’em Reggie came to the spring but looks to have gone off exploring the woods since. He’s not limping, he’s got his socks on and his banky with him, and here the snow is cut down enough by the tree cover that we’re a little better able to track him.
“Don’t tell ’em he scratched himself on a rose thorn or two and he’s bleeding a little. Mommies go nuts over stuff like that.”
“Then saddle our horses and bring the string back up here. If this goes till after daylight, we’ll put you and Dawson on perimeter patrol, jist making sure no Reggie-tracks bust outa here.”
Prosser headed back down the hill at a right smart clip. I turned to Coug and Dawson. “The woods here on top don’t cover no more than forty, maybe fifty acres. We should be able to track the boy down now, doncha think?”
“I surely do hope so,” Trask replied. Of all of us, he could be the most pessimistic at times.
Unfortunately, in this case he turned out to be right.
It was getting gray light, and still nothing. We’d thought we knew this knoll like the backs of our hands, which jist goes to show you how dumb the human animal can be at times. One of them naturalist fellows would have described the little hilltop as being “rich in diversity, featuring a wide variety of flora and fauna”. Or something like that. Not that I ever had much truck with them folks.
We were still certain Reggie was in these woods someplace, but other than that, we mostly knew where he wasn’t. He wasn’t at the spring itself. He wasn’t in the little cave we’d discovered which sure enough hosted a hibernating black bear–thank God he wasn’t in there. He wasn’t in the thicket where we’d flushed out a really irritated bobcat. He wasn’t in the hollow log where the skunks lived, or under the rock overhang where the shape of a loose boulder had half convinced us we’d found him at one point.
“Looks like Laughing Brook and Penny saddling up,” I said, folding the telescope and shoving it back into the carry pouch. “Most likely, she’s nursed Phyllis and stuck Marie with babysitting so’s they can come up to join the search. Jack, why don’t you start perimeter patrol going clockwise? Dawson–”
“Dad,” Cougar spoke so softly I almost didn’t hear him. “Look there.”
He wasn’t pointing, but I seen what he wanted me to see almost immediately.
Medicine Coyote was sitting in front of a little brush thicket not thirty yards off, watching us with considerable interest. Out of the corner of my eye, I sensed motion. “No, Jack. Don’t.”
The man lowered his rifle.
“Welcome back into my life,” I told my medicine animal. “It has been too long.”
“Your pup’s pup is strong,” he replied.
And then we all saw Reggie, his face dirt-streaked and a little on the sleepy side but looking right at home as he come crawling out of that burrow on all fours.
“Good morning, grandson,” I called out to the boy, but quietly at that.
He blinked, grabbing fistfuls of Medicine Coyote’s fur to haul himself to his feet. The critter never moved a hair, jist kept watching me. Fer my part–though I’d not admit it to my son or his wife–once I seen the youngster was okay, I only had eyes fer my old friend.
“Good morning,” Reggie said, finally getting around to it.
“Could you say goodbye to your host and walk over here?” I asked. “Your Dad and I don’t want to trespass near his family’s house.”
“Okay. See you later, Little Wolf,” he hugged the big dog coyote briefly, then began pudgy-trudging toward us through the snow, dragging his red banky behind him. His red banky covered with smelly coyote fur. In the mouth of the burrow, I could dimly see another face.
Mrs. Coyote, curious but shy.